Category Archives: Problematic Advertising

When marketing attacks.

Apple isn’t Apple anymore

Apple recently released its newest ad promoting the iPhone 5s. Take a look.

Chirpy, feel-good indie music accompanies people doing incredible things with their iPhones. Painting murals, plotting courses, administering medical aid to impoverished people. The possibilities are truly endless.

And that really is the message of this ad. With an iPhone 5s, you are empowered to do amazing things–things you might not have realized possible.

It’s a pretty ad. But it’s terrible.

Who needs a soul when you have product features?

The thought process behind this ad is not hard to see. People view iPhones as lifestyle devices. It’s popular and ubiquitous, but market research probably showed that most people don’t know what their phones are capable of.  I certainly didn’t know that I could take a horse’s pulse with a phone.

This led to a well-meaning marketing head at Apple requesting that the agency create an ad focusing on product features, in order to educate consumers. This led TBWA to create an ad focusing on the specific and surprising capabilities of the iPhone 5s.

So what’s the problem?

Replace the iPhone in that advertisement with a Samsung Galaxy. Or an LG G3. Or a Sony Xperia. Would the advertisement still make sense? The answer is yes. This is the mark of a troubled advertisement.

The message “your phone empowers you to do amazing things” can be applied to the majority of the smartphones on the market–certainly those competing with Apple. If anything, Android phones already have a better reputation for amazing capabilities due to their customization and the fact that for the past couple years, Android manufacturers have led the way with new features (e.g. waterproofing, smart watches, etc.).

This ad is a clear departure from what made the iPhone so popular in the first place: accessible technology through Apple’s sleek and easy-to-use UI, all in a styling form factor. Other brands caught up to Apple, but Apple, rather than innovating to stay ahead of the competition, began to chase competitive features.

If Apple continues along this path, then it will suffer in the face of Android’s dramatic increase in market share.

Iconic Apple

Smart phones have changed the world as we know it. It has given us the power to communicate easily with the world at-large. But recently, smart phones have increasingly become commoditized with fewer features to distinguish them. This means that branding will become more and more important (See: Selling the Neighborhood). If Apple focuses on product features and less on the brand qualities that makes Apple iconic, then it’s easy to see where Android competition can eat away at Apple’s position in the market. In the absence of a clear differentiator, brand takes precedent.

So what is the solution?

Apple should return to its roots in order to convey a clear message to potential customers: the Apple design philosophy is about simplicity and style–not a million features you will never use.

Here’s to the good old days.


There’s something incredibly arrogant about this OOH ad. It’s like Apple isn’t even trying. Never mind the fact that the ad itself blends into the building. It’s just a side view of the phone. You know what? I’m sold. Where is the nearest Apple store?




Drugs are winning the advertising war

Anti-drug advertisements have to be some of the least insightful pieces of marketing garbage  out there. Maybe that’s because the people making them don’t properly understand the motivations or consequences of drug abuse. Maybe it’s because the people paying for such advertisements (i.e. governments) are naturally risk-averse and don’t want to push the limits of advertising. Maybe it’s because we’re trapped in an endless cycle of preconceptions and notions about people who get addicted to drugs.

Truth be told, I don’t know why anti-drug advertisements are so bad, but I do know that these are the results in Hong Kong:

Drug friends? What?

Drug friends are the worst. Always bleeding everywhere…

Words. Words. Words! More words. Words.

Words. Words. Descriptors! Words! Dramatic effect!

How I imagine this conversation went: "Hey John, what are some bad drugs that people shouldn't use?" "Uh... ketamine. Heroin." "Aren't they like the same thing?" "I guess" And thus an advertisement was born.

How I imagine the conversation behind this ad went:

“Hey John, what are some bad drugs that people shouldn’t use?”

“Uh… Ketamine. Heroin.”

“Aren’t they like the same thing?”

“I guess.”

Unfortunately, Hong Kong isn’t the epitome of awful anti-drug advertising. It inherited the nonsense from America’s War on Drugs and some of the worst, tone-deaf advertisements of all time. Enjoy:

All drugs will literally kill you immediately. You wouldn't smoke cyanide, would you?

All drugs will literally kill you immediately. You wouldn’t smoke cyanide, would you?

A dog wrote this. If smoking pot gives me the ability to talk to animals, sign me up.

Co-branding won’t save you. Funnily enough, I think “Get a pizza” is the best advice in this incredibly awkward drug deal gone wrong.

Nah, that’s an egg.

20 years later. Still an egg.

Someone thought this was a logical argument.

And the biggest culprit of all.

And the biggest culprit of all.

But wait! Isn’t “Just Say No” the pinnacle of anti-drug advertising? It’s what people think of when they talk about anti-drug campaigns! My response is: how many times have you heard “Just Say No” without an ounce of irony attached to the expression?

The trouble I see with anti-drug advertising isn’t the execution. Some of it is kind of clever. The trouble comes from the insight. Rather than deal with the complex human emotions that are associated with trial, use and abuse of drugs, most organizations seem content with heuristics–gross simplifications of cause and effect.

The thought process behind a typical anti-drug advertisement

 “John, we need to create an ad campaign to get kids away from drugs.”

“Makes sense. Drugs are bad. Let’s think about this logically. Why are drugs bad?”

“Because they are bad for you!”

“People don’t like doing things that are bad for you! Let’s make an ad about how drugs affect your brain!”

“Great idea, John!”

“Yeah, when you’re on drugs, your brain gets scrambled… like an egg!”

“John, you glorious bastard, you just won our agency a Cannes Lion for sure!”

/end scene

Did anti-drug advertisements skip account planners?

The simplification of anti-drug advertisements is problematic because it ignores the bigger issues at play with drugs such as social pressures, depression, curiosity, hopelessness or boredom. It also lumps drugs into one big category where you have advertisers claiming that heroin and ketamine are literally the same thing.

Some ads try to attack root causes, but it’s not enough. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles example above  is the worst offender of the bunch. Yeah, social pressure can theoretically get kids to try drugs. But does anyone in their right minds expect a kid a full foot shorter than an older drug dealer to shove said dealer and say, “I’m not a chicken. You’re a turkey.”

I mean, WHAT.

Social pressures aren’t as simple as a shady guy walking up to a kid and doing a hard sell. It’s more likely to come from a friend, which undercuts the whole “us vs. them” dichotomy that many of these ads try to establish. “Hey, I’ve known you for about ten years and we’re best friends. But you just offered me a joint. We’re done forever, pal.”

Tackling drugs

First, a short economics lesson. For all goods and services in the world, there exists the concept of elasticity. Some things are relatively elastic in terms of demand. Store doesn’t have Coca Cola? “Whatever. Pepsi is fine.”

Other things are far more inelastic, meaning demand doesn’t change much, even if supply is short. Drugs are a perfect examples of an inelastic good. If there’s high supply due to legalization, then obtaining drugs is simple. If there’s low supply due to law enforcement or smuggling restrictions, demand remains the same but the costs of obtaining drugs rise dramatically. Bear in mind that those costs include the actual price and the risk involved. Crime rises when the supply falls.

So attacking supply seems like a poor way of dealing with the drug problem. This is where legalization arguments come in. If it’s legal, people will still buy drugs, but at least they’ll do so in a regulated environment. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Attacking demand for drugs is a far more effective anti-drug strategy, because with less demand, there’s less of a need for an expansive international drug network with its associated crime. In theory, anti-drug advertisements should be effective–if they actually address the root causes of drug demand.

For anti-drug advertisements to be effective, they need to recognize some key issues:

  • Elementary school kids probably aren’t going to be taking heroin. Re-adjust your audience targets, please.
  • Realistically, “just say no” isn’t enough. The social world of a teenager is complicated enough without introducing a black-and-white moral judgement into their lives. All JSN does is empower other kids to cast judgement on other teenagers, which helps no one.
  • Teenagers think they’re invincible. Just look at teen mortality rates behind the wheel. Does a description of the effects of drug use actually dissuade this already irrational audience?
  • Anti-drug advertisers need to stop pretending to be cool. Even if an ad were 99% authentic, most people would be able to sniff out that 1% that was clearly influenced by someone too straight-laced to be relevant to their target audience. This means never include hip-hop in your advert.
  • Word of mouth advertising is the most powerful kind of advertising. Let’s say Kid A sees an anti-pot ad. It says pot will turn your brain to crap. Let’s say Kid A has a friend, Kid B, who smokes pot. But Kid B doesn’t have a crap brain! Is Kid A supposed to believe the ad or his actual experiences?
  • On that note, don’t lie to your audience. Pot won’t cause you to die an incredibly painful death. There are problems with pot, but don’t over-sell them or your entire facade of credibility is ruined. Laziness and over-eating are perfectly valid criticisms of pot use. There’s no need to exaggerate.

Whether or not the government should outlaw drug use is a big, complicated question. But if the government decides to enact an anti-drug campaign, it does have a responsibility to ensure that its policies have a minimum level of effectiveness. Otherwise I’m wasting my tax money.

Just say no (to bad anti-drug ads).

The most stereotypical LinkedIn article you’ll ever read

From the front page of LinkedIn today:

5 lessons every startup should learn from the German football team

Don’t click the link bait, please. Let me run down those five lessons for you here:

  1. Determination (Deep insight that.)
  2. Learn from the Competition (Wow!)
  3. Flexibility (You mean I’m not supposed to mindlessly pursue a single activity forever? Hold on, I’m taking notes)
  4. Keep all eyes on the goal (BRB. Need to rescind company-wide policy of neglecting goals)
  5. Seize all opportunities, score all goals, be limitless (I hate this entire list, but I particularly hate this one. It amounts to: do good and make money. It reminds me of my favorite strategy from chess: win.)

Today’s lessons:

  • Avoid LinkedIn if you enjoy impactful commentary.
  • Don’t hang your hat on relevant events if what you’re saying is entirely irrelevant.


Here are some of the comments from the article:

  • “Well said… Brilliant, in fact.”
  • “keep smashing it till the final whistle ?”
  • “The group doesn’t rely on 1 or 2 individuals, it’s their ability to play & interact to gether that makes a stronger team … just like in business, teamwork and good relationship between coworkers usually creates positive spirit and results.”
  • “Release fast, release often, and iterate” – Can’t agree more.”
  • “I like you analysis – succinct and relevant. Thankest :-)”

But all hope is not lost:

  • “Corniest article ever.”

5 Tips from a Social Media Ninja

The social media revolution is upon us. Just ask anyone how they spend the majority of their time, and they’ll say surfing social media networks like Facebook or Myspace. Successful businesses are taking note with many CMO’s citing social media as being the single most important thing they think about at night, behind branding, distribution and traditional advertising.

After all, most people want to hold earnest conversations with the brands they know and love. Consequently, there is an increasing demand for experts who know the ins-and-outs of the dynamic world of social media. Here are five types for getting social media to work for (and not against!) your business:

#1 – Have a social media presence.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it is. And yet, there are literally thousands of self-appointed social media experts and gurus out there who derive credibility for lists such as this one. The fact that you read past that horrid introduction is a bad sign. But who knows? Maybe it’s early and you haven’t had your morning coffee yet. Or you’re recovering from open heart surgery. No worries. We all have bad days.

#2 – Post content regularly.

Another simple, but topic-rich suggestion for… Oh dear. You’re still reading.

#3 – Engage with your customers.

Respond to your customers’ feedback! And here you are. Still reading. You should know something, friend. This entire article is not what you thought it was—a clear road map for “cracking” social media, from a knowledgeable millennial1. It’s a joke. A ruse. At your expense.

What? Were you expecting a social media ninja? Listen, I don’t know what your business objectives are, but unless they are heralding another Meiji Restoration, you don’t need a ninja. You certainly don’t need one who spends his days among the digtirati trying to find the next #YOLO.

I wish this screen capture were doctored. But it isn't.
7,712 new enemies.


#4 – Encourage conversations.

An engaged customer is literally the happiest person in the world. Here are examples of posts that are sure to spark conversations:

Thank goodness it’s Friday #TGIF

(This is a secular spin on an old favorite)

Sure is hot today #weather

(Topical AND accurate, especially for members of your audience near the equator)

Which sausage would you rather eat? (include a picture of two delicious sausages, labeled A and B)

(You don’t have to be a sausage brand to talk sausage)


Nothing demonstrates expertise in a given field more than what amounts to word diarrhea.
Nothing demonstrates expertise in a given field more than what essentially amounts to word diarrhea.


#5 – Post content regularly.

This is literally the same thing as #2.

OK, time for real talk. I love marketing because it’s an interesting and exciting mixture of science and artistry. We aren’t persuading people to act today; we’re not even persuading people to act tomorrow. We’re just trying to get them to pay attention for a little bit and notice us so that one day, when our product or service matters, they will remember us.

That’s it.

We’re not trying to subliminally manipulate them nor should we believe our audience takes the short bus to work every day. Everyone in the world wants the same thing: relevant stuff. It could be fun. It could be entertaining. It just needs to cut through the clutter of Branded Nonsense and deliver some value. Nothing is free in this world, especially people’s most valuable commodity: time.

Some real thoughts on social media:

  • Social media is important, but the idea behind a given post or campaign is 100x more so. Screaming at your audience is as worthless as screaming at a crowd of confused Japanese tourists in Times Square.
  • Social media is where people go to seek value. They want to chat with friends. They want to read interesting articles or view silly pictures of cats. They want to stalk ex-girlfriends and spend all night trying to figure out whether they want to ask the girl they really like on a coffee date. They don’t want to converse with companies, ESPECIALLY if they have nothing relevant to say.
  • Just because you can say something, does not mean you should. Saying something just to create noise is a waste of time (and more times than not, budget).
  • Beyond all else, ask yourself: would I share this piece of content with my best friends without being laughed at? If you say yes, ask yourself the same question repeatedly until you’re absolutely sure.

OK, social media ninjas. Here’s hoping you abandon #YOLO in favor of some decent content strategy.



1. Put this on the list of words bound to boost your SEO. Right up there with “engagement” and “social media revolution.”